Affirmative action is not a number

Photo courtesy of philasun.com

After signing the Civil Rights Act, July 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson addressed the graduating class at Howard University.  He said, “You do not take a man who for years has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, saying, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe you have been completely fair…”

But that was then and now is now.  How much longer must our public education system continue to right the wrong that denies minorities’ equal access to higher public education?  Is there some magical number that says mission accomplished?

The U.S. Supreme Court, in the recent case of Fisher v. The University of Texas, asked the same question, and the university responded by saying it required the flexibility to consider race as one of many factors in building a “critical mass” of underrepresented minorities.  Chief Justice Roberts pressed, asking, “When will I know that you’ve reached a critical mass?”  The university responded by saying, “[When] African Americans and Hispanics do not feel like a spokesperson for their race.” Astute, I thought.

Fisher was denied admission, according to the university, because she was not within the top 10 percent of high school graduates in the State of Texas, which accounts for approximately 85 percent of incoming freshman.  Fisher went on to attend and graduate from Louisiana State University and her lawsuit was dismissed by a lower court, but the Supreme Court decided to review her case, which is well within their purview.  Fisher is claiming that the University of Texas discriminated against her because she is white and that less qualified African Americans and Hispanics were given preference because of race.

How is this woman able to claim discrimination based on race when white women dominate the nation’s higher education system at public and private universities? They also lead the nation in post-graduate enrollments and currently have the lowest unemployment rate at 6.2 percent. Affirmative action cannot be reduced to the level of an individual because it is attempting to address a nation’s failings in a polarized world of politics, religion and race.  It is not about an individual, such as Fisher; it is about a nation of people that watch a young white man, on national television, at a Romney rally wearing a tee shirt that reads, “Put White Back in the White House.”  It is about the Koch Brothers that use their wealth to promote segregation in public education, attempting to turn back the hand of time.  We know separate but equal is not equal and denies diversity. And diversity is about changing those who would urinate on the Koran or burn an Israeli Flag or hang a noose in a UC library.  Affirmative action seeks to change political leaders in our nation who pass Jim Crow Laws denying Americans the right to vote because of their political affiliation or color of skin.  Affirmative action on the campuses of our public universities is this nation’s last bastion of hope to bring a diverse people together and this cannot happen if diversity vanishes where it matters most—where the future leaders of this nation prepare themselves for the world.

Yet some will argue that it has been long enough, that the time has come to set aside race, the color of skin, religion and national origin when determining college admissions.  And there is no greater wish in my heart for that day because my grandson is a Huckins, a blue-eyed, yellow-haired devil, and my granddaughters are Greenwoods with hazel eyes and burnish hair, bright and happy, but I must put social justice before my personal interest because my children and their children will derive the greatest benefit when social justice is the law of the land.

And while the highest court in this nation demands numbers, I can’t help but think they simply don’t get it.  They haven’t connected the dots that translate from the campus of a public university to society.  Here at UCR we are preparing the leaders of tomorrow; we are preparing them to respect the difference in people.  Look around and tell me that Jews or Muslims are treated with dignity and respect in all venues, or that African Americans and Latinos have equal access to education when every number in education says differently.  How long should it take? As long as it should, because affirmative action is not a number—it is a condition, and until society is blind to race, religion and color we must always understand the importance of creating a world where respect and equity become a way of life, not a political slogan.  History has clearly shown us that we have yet to find a way to live together in peace.  And if the United States of America is the greatest nation on earth then it must be the light that illuminates this path for the world to see and learn.  Social justice has no beginning or end, it is always.

Justices John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito signed an opinion that reads, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”  How ingenious I thought.  Therefore, if we were strike all the criminal laws from the books then all crime would magically disappear.  Strike down affirmative action and discrimination will magically disappear. How clever, how wonderfully clever.  Social justice is not a number and it is not measured on the campus at the University of Texas but in society.  And so long as Latino or African American children are a year behind when they enter the school system and four years behind when they graduate high school, we have failed to address the needs of an education system that is different for people of color or for those who are economically challenged.  We cannot turn a blind eye to the lack of equity at the lower end of our education system and then claim a level playing field at the higher end; the latter cannot sustain itself without the former.  The problems plaguing education are holistic and require a holistic approach.

If you wonder what the death of affirmative action looks like all you need to do is look at the University of California. The UC Regents, in 1995, passed a resolution eliminating race, religion, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin as criteria for admission.  The following year Proposition 209 passed and further prohibited race-conscious outreach and financial aid.  Despite strategies aimed at diversity, African American, Latino and Native American undergraduate admissions dropped by 58 percent at Berkeley. At UCLA, minority admissions dropped by 53 percent and the gap of undergraduate minority students increased from 18 percent to 23 percent on UC campuses.

Affirmative action is about social justice and social justice does not have a beginning or an end—it is a permanent way of life that ensures access, equity and diversity.  So has it been long enough?  Not nearly!

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